Sunday, March 14, 2010

"That's just the way grace is"

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The writer Charles Dickens once said that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, which makes up most of today’s Gospel lesson, is the finest short story ever told. Jesus was always telling parables (stories), you know. One of my old mentors, Dr. Richard Jensen, insists that whenever we moderns preach on the Prodigal Son, we should use a story.* A few years ago, Jensen, in fact, wrote a story sermon for this passage. Another pastor, Ed Markquart, revised it a bit. I've revised it a more myself and want to share it with you now. So, here it is: The Lonely Lady of Blairstown.
George Miller and his wife moved to Blairstown in the 1950’s. George was transferred there by his company and although moving was a pain, George was glad to do it. Not only was he making more money, Blairstown itself was a nice place.

In the center of Blairstown was a park, well groomed with lots of flowers and trees. George walked through the park every day on his way to and from work. He even walked through it to and from lunch every day. On his daily walks, he noticed everything about the place, including an elderly woman who always seemed to be there. At first, George didn’t pay much attention to this lonely figure.

"It’s probably just a coincidence that she seems to always be around when I'm here,” he told himself. Yet as the months rolled on, she really was always there. It started to spook George. He asked himself: “Who is she? What’s she doing in this park all the time?” Though she was ordinary in most ways, there was longing, lonely gaze in her eyes, as if she were looking or waiting for someone. George was troubled by her, and finally asked Harold Clark, a native of Blairstown, “Who is that woman?”

“Oh, you mean the lonely lady of Blairstown Park,” Harold said “Her name is Grace Simon. She’s spent a lot of time in that park recently. She’s a lonely old soul. Her husband, Tom, died a long time ago when their three kids were still little. Now, Shirley, their oldest, runs the furniture store and Steve, the middle one, runs the funeral home, both places on Main Street. When Tom died, he left the two businesses to Grace and, years later, she gave one business to each kid.

“There was a third child. Frank was his name name. Grace learned a few years back that Frank died in an automobile accident out west. Anyway, having only two children instead of three, the businesses could be neatly divided between Shirley and Steve. Grace was a huge help to them. Without Grace, they couldn't have made a go of it. But eventually, they got to the point that they didn’t want her around any more. They became engulfed in a family feud.

“The feud started one day when Grace got a letter from Denver. At first, she wouldn’t tell anybody what was in it. But people could see that it had her worked up. She asked Steve and Shirley for some money. She had to get a train ticket to go to Denver immediately. They thought their Mom had gone off her rocker. She pleaded, ‘Steve and Shirley, I have to have a ticket! I’ve got to go to Denver!’ But she wouldn’t tell anybody why. The kids finally broke down and they got her a train ticket to Denver. Grace headed west.

“It turns out, though none of us knew it when Grace made her visit, that Frank wasn’t dead at all. He was in jail on several counts of armed robbery. He’d been too ashamed to tell his mother of his conviction. So, he had one of his buddies write a letter to his mother saying that he had been killed when his car crashed through a bridge and plunged into the river. He even had him send a clipping from a Colorado newspaper that seemed to verify the story. Anyhow, years later, Frank decided to tell his mother the truth.

"I don’t know why he did it. He should have left things the way they were. It would have been better for Grace and the family to think Frank was dead. Everybody here loved Grace and we all were pretty angry with Frank for telling his mother that he was still alive. Think about it: First he runs away from home, then breaks Grace’s heart with news that he’s dead, and then comes back into her life, a convicted felon! He put his mother through a wringer and it made all of us all upset!

“It was quite a scene in prison when Grace and Frank met. The guards took Grace down a long hallway, into a waiting room with lots of other people. Then a guard took Grace into a small room. He told her to wait. She sat for what felt like an eternity. Then she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Her heart seemed to pound in time with the approaching steps. The door opened and Grace’s eyes locked with those of Frank.

“Grace moved first; she always does. She walked over to Frank and wrapped her arms around him. She held him and began to cry. She kept on saying, ‘We thought you were dead’ She said it over and over again. At first, Frank stood stiff and lifeless in his mother’s embrace. But then, melted by Grace, he grabbed his mother and held her. He too began to cry.

”Grace visited Frank several times during the two weeks that she was in Denver. After that, she went out there every year for some years. Not long ago, Grace learned that Frank was supposed to be ready for parole any day. When Grace learned that, she told Frank that once he got out of prison, he should come home. ‘I’ve got plenty of room in the house!” she told him. “Frank, you can even be a partner in the family businesses!’

“Well, when Grace got back to Blairstown, she was all excited. She was telling anyone who would listen, ‘Frank’s alive. My boy’s alive! All that business about an accident was wrong. He’s alive!’ She told all of us. Not a word about Frank being a felon. Just, ‘He’s alive!’ over and over again.

“To tell the truth, she was about the only one in Blairstown excited because we’d never had a hometown boy stay in prison for thirty years for armed robbery. People around here weren’t too keen on the whole idea of seeing him. Frank might have been alive, but Frank was a good-for-nothing crook. I mean, what were we supposed to say to Grace, ‘Gee - I’m glad your son’s alive and in prison’? We didn’t say anything. We were just embarrassed.

“Shirley and Steve, Grace’s other kids, weren’t quiet at all, though. When Grace told them that Frank wanted to come home, to disgrace them all, and their momma – and that when she’d said that he could be a part of the family businesses – THAT was the last straw. Shirley and Steve were dumbfounded. A crook in their family businesses? In Blairstown? It just couldn’t happen! Shirley and Steve were right about that. The whole town agreed that Frank would ruin things.

“But Grace didn’t look at it that way. Frank was her son too. She argued that he had a right to be back in the family. That’s what started the family feud. Shirley and Steve had a lawyer draw up papers to rule Frank out of the business altogether. When Grace protested, they told her that it was none of her business. It was only their business and they could do what they wanted. They also told her to never to come into their businesses or to pester them about Frank again.

“I thought that was really unkind. After all, Grace had given them the businesses in the first place. She’d worked hard to help them when they got their starts. Worse than that though, is that they don’t even invite Grace over to their homes anymore. They don’t want to hear her talk about Frank. She doesn’t even get to see her grandchildren unless they sneak over to the park to see her.

“Anyway, George, that’s why Grace Simon wanders alone in Blairstown Park. The Lonely Lady of Blairstown Park, that’s what everybody calls her. She’s out there right now, watching and waiting. Of course, she’s waiting for Frank to come home. And rumor has it that he’s out of prison and coming home any day. So she’s watching that highway coming into town, watching for her boy to come back home. But, if you look at her, you can see that she’s also got her eyes on Main Street an awful lot of the time, Main Street, where her two kids run the family businesses. She’s watching for some sign of love, some softening of the heart, some sign of welcome from Steve and Shirley.”

George interrupted Harold’s story. “You’d think that she wouldn’t want anything to do with those kids,” George said. “What do you suppose Grace would do if those kids, Steve and Shirley, did have some change of heart?” he asked. Harold thought for a moment and said, “I think that Grace would do just like she did with Frank. She’d welcome them with open arms. And if they ever come to their senses, she’s going to run and throw her arms around them and give them a great big love. You know, that’s just the way she is. That’s just the way Grace is.”
And that’s the way God’s grace, given in Christ is, too. No matter how far you wander, our God of grace always wants to welcome you home!

*Theologian Helmut Thielicke calls this the parable of The Waiting Father, maybe a more apt description, since the Father--a figure of God--is the most important actor in Jesus' parable.

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